An Edge Interview with Michael Ortiz Hill
Life has taught Michael Ortiz Hill compassion, and in return, he is teaching us.
A registered nurse, Buddhist practitioner and initiated medicine man with the tribal people of Zimbabwe, Michael experienced much grief as a young man. For three years, he lived as a homeless teenager in Santa Cruz, CA. As he writes in the preface of his new book, Conspiracies of Kindness: The Craft of Compassion at the Bedside of the Ill, “my life was gathering garbage to eat, sleeping under the freeway bridge if it rained, solitude, dysentery, lice, scabies, and an extreme psyche.” His father was an alcoholic whose slow suicide played out in front of him. Michael was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago.
And yet, he not only survives, but thrives.
At the age of 16, he learned to meditate. His father, a Buddhist, won a statue of Kwan Yin in a card game in Korea during the war. He told Michael, “Some are taken by miracles like walking on water, but the real miracle is compassion and it’s available to everybody. Live by that, Michael.”
The core of Michael’s spiritual practice has been compassion. He teaches others about the four steps of the craft: self-compassion, compassion for others, radical empathy, seeing through another’s eyes and the mysterium, living compassion. And through his teaching, we all are blessed with that much more kindness flowing in our midst.
He spoke with The Edge from his home in Topanga, CA.
Why did you title your book, Conspiracies of Kindness?
Michael Ortiz Hill: Conspiracies is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin con, meaning “with,” and spiros, “to breathe.” To breathe together is the meaning of conspiracies. As a practicing Buddhist, I was thinking about sitting and meditation, as one does, what they call zazen in Zen Buddhism, to sit and breathe with a group of people, recognizing that there are those of us who are part of what one can call the machinery of Western medicine — or the empire or the salt mines, as I have called it — who know that compassion is what we are there for, and we quietly conspire among ourselves on behalf of people who are suffering.
I like that. For whom is your book intended?
MOH: This book is for a general audience. The next edition, which will come out shortly, is targeted to health care providers, doctors and nurses and chaplains — people who are, in fact, doing that kind of work.
Why did you write this book?
MOH: For years I had been telling my wife, Deena Metzger, the stories of what I do in the hospital, and for years she has said, “You’ve got to write them down.”
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, and the day I was diagnosed she sent me to be alone for a few days and to reflect on what everything was about. She said I must write this book, and the offering of the book is the offering up of the multiple sclerosis. My healing is involved with writing it. It is the fruit of the healing of multiple sclerosis. I no longer have MS.
How do you define compassion?
MOH: I work from the Buddhist definition, which is sympathetic joy, sympathetic sorrow, which is to say, joy over another’s joy and sorrow over another’s sorrow. So one connects with others sympathetically from the place of your joy and the place of your sorrow.
Early in your book when you described your early life as a teenager and your relationship with your dad, you write, “Circumstances in this life are a school for learning compassion.” I really like that. A friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for more than 15 years just passed away, and I’ve been reflecting on that relationship. I look back on it now and it truly was all about learning compassion.
MOH: Yeah, you got it. That’s precisely right. I do open the book speaking of him drinking himself to death. I came of age as a teenager with my father suiciding by way of alcohol and cigarettes. One recognizes the preciousness of another human being often after they have passed, and one learns what one learned about compassion through the passing.
What are the unique challenges for compassion among those who care for the ill?
MOH: Aldous Huxley wrote that the modern world is made up of organized lovelessness. I think that says it in a nutshell. We are forever distracted from the simple activity of love, which is to say, we are distracted away from our heart.
In Buddha dharma, the tradition I practice, the understanding is that the compassionate mind is one’s true nature. It is who you are, down into the marrow bone and the cells. But we get distracted from our true nature.
Organized lovelessness for anybody who has worked in a health care facility — and I’ve spent 20 years in the salt mines of Western medicine — is dealing with all the endless obstacles. Being very much in a hurry, one can certainly complain about understaffing, which is a reality wherever you go.
What is it that gets in the way of simply being present? Buddha dharma, presentness, is compassion. To be present is to be compassionate.
What do you see in modern medicine today that indicates there is a paradigm shift toward relationship-based caring?
MOH: I know, in fact, that now people are speaking specifically of relationship-based caring. They are looking at it.
In the second edition of this book targeted for health care workers, I interview Dr. Bill Manahan of Minneapolis. Bill used to be the head of the American Holistic Medical Association. And in the chapter on self-compassion as a healing modality, Bill reminds us that for the last 50 years we have had incredible technological advances in medicine — miraculous, really — and he believes the next 50 years will be about the craft of compassion, what they call the soft side of the healing profession. I took that very seriously. He sees this as a real shift. And bless his soul, he said, “I think your book is on the cutting edge of that.”
You describe compassion as a learnable craft. I don’t think most people think about compassion in that way.
MOH: Exactly. What makes it a learnable craft? I can only look at the way I framed it in the book, the four steps of the learnable craft:
- Self-compassion — This is fundamental, the initial step, about what it is to be kind toward one’s self, not only do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you. That’s fundamental in the healing professions, but not only the healing professions. It is where people are so profoundly wounded. When he came to North America, The Dali Lama was astonished because he doesn’t see this among Tibetans, the mental blocks to simply being kind to oneself.
- Compassion for others — Again, this is sympathetic joy and sympathetic sorrow. One’s joy becomes a way of meeting another’s joy, one’s sorrow becomes a way of meeting another’s sorrow.
- Radical empathy — Seeing through another’s eyes. What is it to see through another’s eyes? The radical perception of the other.
- Living compassion — Getting out of the way. That is when compassion is recognized as selfless, a pure gift. One is gifted with compassion, which is to say one is given the gift of compassion. One has not earned it, and one extends that gift to another.
What do you offer when you teach The Craft of Compassion?
MOH: We go through the four steps. People get very self-conscious, saying, “I am not compassionate enough,” which is an issue because it ends up that compassion becomes a possession that one has or does not have or does not have enough of, and then compassion becomes fuel for narcissism, a total distraction. What is it to think of compassion as one’s actual, profound, original nature, and how to make a life around that original nature?
In this new edition of the book, one of the last chapters is going to be called, “Two sides of the same coin.” Self-compassion and compassion for others are two sides of the same coin. Often people think of them as totally different worlds, but they’re not at all. So we explore the foundation of self-compassion for the work with compassion for others.
And then there is the paradigm shift, where you get out of the way and become living compassion. You realize compassion is not a personal quality. It is a gift. The paradigm shift is about stepping out of the personalization of it. When one speaks of self-compassion and compassion for others, one can get tangled up in personalizing it instead of saying the spirit of compassion is so much wiser, and so much larger, than you or I. How do we put the self to the side so the spirit can come through? In the book, I call this the mysterium, because it is profoundly the mystery of what compassionate activity is.
You describe these four steps in the book as a circle and write about how during a single day you may move in and out of all four of those steps. To move into that circle, does it take intention, willingness, courage?
MOH: Exactly. Beautifully put. Thank you.
And I would add mindfulness.
MOH: Yes, definitely mindfulness. Mindfulness is absolutely fundamental.
To consciously move into this space, are some people just naturally there and other people need to work on it?
MOH: Definitely, there is no question about that, and it is life’s work. And it is, in fact, as you say, mindfulness. It is about returning to simply the present moment and being available to it.
At one point in the book I said, “We cannot own the quality of compassion, but we can be available to it.” One pays attention to being available to the spirit of compassion.
I was raised Catholic. I want to say Sephardic Catholic, because I found out when I was 32 that my Catholic ancestors were, in fact, Jews. And my father was Buddhist. And I was trained as a medicine man in Zimbabwe in Africa. I have moved between different spiritual traditions, and different spiritual traditions have different ways of understanding the spirit of compassion. If you are a Christian, Christ and Mary are spirits of compassion. If you are a Buddhist, Kwan Yin and the Shakyamuni Buddha are spirits of compassion.
How do you get out of the way so the spirit of compassion can come through? That’s the bottom line. It returns to mindfulness, because if you are not mindful you will not get out of the way, often quite preoccupied with nonsense.
With respect to compassion for yourself, you talk about being cracked open. I like that chapter of examples that you provide. What do you mean by that?
MOH: Beginning with my relationship with my father, I was cracked open. I was a homeless teenager for three years, and then when I came off the street he died, literally. I had been living in a house for all of three or four months and then, right after he died, my girlfriend — who rather swiftly became my wife — got pregnant. So, this is being cracked open (laughs).
Circumstances that cause you to awaken?
MOH: Yes. While my wife was pregnant, I realized at age 20 that I was going to be a father soon and I did not want to pass my woundedness or my ancestral woundedness on to my child, and so I had to pay attention. I used to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day I would write 10 things I was grateful for. It would be simple, like a beautiful sunset or my daughter’s smile, and I learned the habit of being grateful. That is the ground of self-compassion.
But the point about being cracked open is that in the story of any given soul, everybody has their equivalent. Sooner or later, you will be cracked open — and what is it to find gratitude in the midst of that? What is it to be open? In the chapter on self-compassion, I quote Leonard Cohen’s song: “Forget about your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” That’s about being cracked open.
How does compassion express itself to those who are not open to receiving it? It’s just the act of being, right? In presence with this soul?
MOH: Exactly. One carries the gift of it. The compassion activity is with you and you express it, and whether it is visibly received or not, nonetheless, one carries it. I tell the story about dear Kelsey Ramage. When I was homeless, when I was really at the bottom of being homeless, I had just come through a schizophrenic episode and was in utter despair. I would pass this woman on the street, and for months she would simply say, “Good morning.” And when I look at that time, that “Good morning” — that exchange of me saying “Good morning” back to her — that was the thread that kept me from falling into the abyss.
It showed me that no act of compassion, however small, is insignificant. And there was no way that I would presume that Kelsey would know how hugely significant that was for me. One could say I made a life of it, actually.
One carries the simple, sweet dignity of the compassionate presence, and whether you see the results or not, it’s not relevant.
How does compassion work with hospice care?
MOH: A few years ago my wife and I were with a friend who was dying of liver cancer. It was an extraordinary time, because Los Angeles was burning, as it turned out. The Los Angeles riots took place the night that she died. We were around her bed and it was, how do you say, it was a good death. It was as good as it gets.
I was with her lover, talking to her lover about what to expect. Her lover was a young woman who had never been at the bedside of someone who was dying. And I said, “Well, this is the way it is: There’s kind of a slipknot, and the person who’s dying is pulling on one end and the community around the bed is pulling on the other end. And then, sooner or later, the slipknot unravels and then the person passes.
You cannot hurry it. You just are present, that’s all. You just are present.” That’s what I have seen. That’s the wisest I could come up with.
For more information, please visit MichaelOrtizHill.com.